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Saturday, October 27, 2012

Manfish

Manfish, A Story of Jacques Cousteau
by Jennifer Berne
illustrated by Éric Puybaret


This picture book biography of the world-famous Captain Jacques-Yves Cousteau is quite an homage to  his indomitable spirit as a marine explorer and conservationist.

I remember watching movies of the deep sea expeditions by Cousteau and his Calypso team; I remember being awestruck by the underwater images and the magical term 'aqua-lung' (not the Jethro Tull album, although that was quite captivating as well.)

Before his candid filming brought to the world the amazing creatures of the deep sea, little was known about this as-yet unexplored habitat.

The text is almost poetic in places, giving a rich account of Jacques' life from birth to late in his life. His love for water, his fascination for movies and filming, his irrepressible curiosity and spirit to explore the unknown all come across eloquently.

The illustrations are a visual treat, lush with the cool blues and greens of the ocean, with rich dark tones of the deep to remind us of the lack of natural light in those parts. Every double page spread captures the narration with elegance and charm, with a little bit of the whimsy.

For example, when Jacques dreamed that he could breathe underwater for real, having read a story about a man who could breathe underwater through a long tube, when he dreamed that he could fly, the picture shows young Jacques with outstretched arms flying with the gulls, swimming with the fish, in a gently ambiguous blue background that could be the sky or the water in a wide double-page spread.

My favorite is the page where Jacques tries on a pair of goggles his friend gave him - the split image shows the bottom half of the page with the gorgeous beauty under water and the top part of the page shows a hazy stretch of ocean and land with buildings and bridges in the far horizon, the focus being on the rays and Moorish idol and clown fish and other fauna in eye-popping colors.

It was magical to learn about the diving equipment Cousteau perfected with his engineers, with the deep sea gear and wet suits, and the discovery of many new species with strange adaptations.

Kids' favorite page: the fold out long vertical spread that mentions the discovery of  rays ("fish that fly through water"), truckfish ("big as a truck with lips like giant tyres"), Checkerboard fish ("with red and white checks from head to tail"), fish that looked like plants and plants that looked like fish.

Author's Note describes Jacques Cousteau as 'protector of our planet and its creatures', 'spokesperson for the sea', besides all the remarkable talents he shared with the world. Over 115 films and 50 books, and his rallying cry, "Il faut aller voir" ("We must go and see for ourselves"), doubtless has inspired many to follow in his illustrious footsteps.

While it is impossible to condense Captain Cousteau's life in a few pages, the book presents his story with clarity and grace, closing with his marine conservation efforts, adding a gentle call to action to the children:

Jacques dreamed that someday it would be you, exploring worlds never seen, never imagined. Whole new worlds, silent and shimmering. Worlds that are now yours. To discover. To care for. and to love.

The book is available in four other languages - French, Korean, Portuguese and Polish.

Another book by Jennifer Berne that was much-enjoyed in our house is Calvin Can't Fly.

[This post written for Saffron Tree's CROCUS 2012 event]

[image source: http://www.jenniferberne.com/books.html]

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